Journalism as capitalism: Now that’s God’s work

The only way that journalism is going to be sustainable is if it is profitable – and out of that market relationship comes many other benefits: accountability to the public it serves; independence from funders’ agendas; growth; innovation. This is the future for journalism we envisioned in the New Business Models for News Project.

Not-for-profit, publicly and charitably supported journalism has its place in the new ecosystem of news; that’s why we included it in our models at CUNY. I think it should fill in blanks the market doesn’t fill.

But I agree with Jack Shafer at least in part that there are dangers to relying too much on not-for-profit news. He does an admirable job listing those dangers, chief among them influence by funders and their motives. Texas Tribune funder and founder John Thornton responds here. I’ll stand halfway between them: We can use and perhaps need funded journalism but we also need to be aware of the risks and must expect transparency about them.

I see another danger, though: that not-for-profit ventures will delay or even choke off for-profit, sustainable entrepreneurship in news. I would prefer to see various of the many funders who gave funds to not-for-profit endeavors – note $5 million give to a new not-for-profit entity in the Bay area – instead had invested in for-profit companies that can build companies that support and sustain themselves rather than rely on hand-outs. That is God’s work.

Mind you, I’m not coming at this from the perspective – as some might – that journalism has to be produced only by paid professionals. I have argued that we would be wise to account for the value of volunteerism and that we must find ways to reduce the marginal cost of news and new journalism to near-zero.

But in terms of saving the functions reporters perform, I think we should find ways to support them and their work in profitable enterprises. So, in a rare moment, I disagree with Clay Shirky that we must rescue reporters as charities. This call continues the notion that journalism is in a crisis. No, its legacy owners are in a crisis because they could not and would not change; Clay’s right that their models and buildings are burning. But journalism is facing no end of opportunities (as the Knight Commission’s Ted Olson said at today’s Knight Foundation presentation of the group’s recommendations: never before in journalism has there been so much opportunity for innovation in journalism).

So let’s not save those reporters and let’s certainly not save doomed companies that refused to change. Let’s invest in the future, in creating new means of gathering and sharing a community’s news that are better than old methods and that are more efficient and thus more easily sustainable. That’s what we present in the New Business Models for News. When we presented at the Aspen Institute this summer, I pointed to a blog post I wrote (but can’t find now) a year and a half ago arguing that when the Washington Post bought out reporters, it should invest in them, setting them up with blogs and businesses and promoting and selling ads for them. That resonated. And that is one step toward a new model built on networks, profitable networks. There are many more that need building.

  • Could not agree more.
    Journalism has to become much more aggressive in terms of making money and so do journalists. We need to remove the ‘wall’ between business and journalism, and the belief that is so deeply held that somehow the ‘business’ side must be kept separate from the ‘journalism’ side to preserve its ‘purity’.

    The whole online revolution was about journalism more than anything else, and journalists and journalistic institutions all got screwed out of everything and were left out to dry and die. This is crazy.

    Journalism should have been on the forefront of the online revolution and journalists and newspapers should have created and owned every stick of furniture from Google to Craigslist. Instead they are living on a cardboard box on the street begging for handouts.


    Get aggressive. Being and business and making money are no crime. Just ask Ben Franklin – a very good journalist and a very good businessman. Journalism schools should require an MBA as part of the curriculum. Kudos to you and CUNY for your entrepreneurial course. More of that!!!

    We can own the future if we have the courage to get aggressive.

    • Evil Pundit

      Thank God your scenario didn’t become reality. I shudder to think where we would be if journalists and newspapers were still the self-appointed gatekeepers of the news.

      The Internet has freed us from the shackles of journalism. It may yet free journalism itself from journalists.

  • cm

    It really depends on what you want to achieve and how you measure success.

    Should journalism strive for quality reporting or should it strive mainly for profit?

    To take a musical analogy. Very few symphony orchestras are financially viable. Does that mean that these should be reformed into rap music groups?

    The media empire building of the 1980s and 1990s saw a lot of smaller independent newspapers and publications being bought out by corporates. They lost their independence and started to be squeezed to be more profitable.

    The biggest problem with using advertising to fund online news is that the temptation is there to reduce the news from a critical analysis to sound bites that bring eyeballs and search hits towards the advertising revenue.

    Don’t let the facts get in the way of making a fast buck.

    I’m cherry picking here, but consider the difference between these wo Nature articles.
    One from the 19th century:
    quite informative, but probably boring to non-target audience.

    One from this year: with the sensational opener that “US drinking water is drugged”. This is conspiracy theory fodder and is utter sensationalism if you compare it to the research it refers to.

    Is the new business still journalism, or is it just copy-writing to tout for advertising eyeballs?

  • Greg Watts

    I agree, Jeff. I’m halfway through your book What Would Google Do? It’s a fantastic read!

  • Here’s some irony.

    I agree.

    And I run a nonprofit in the journalism world:

    The reason I did as a nonprofit wasn’t because I thought it was “the way to go” or because I am an SF hippie (although I am). It was because I was inherently dealing with other people’s money (donations) and I wanted to get the idea tested as quick as possible and saw going nonprofit as a way to do that and skirt issues of taking small donations.

    That said: Spot.Us is NOT meant to sustain an entire news organization. It is meant to be one of many revenue streams that a news organization (profit or nonprofit) can use.

    In truth I think comparing nonprofit and for profit models are a bit of apples and oranges – just as the comment above pointed out. But I don’t see nonprofit as inherently flawed or graced. Neither with for profit.

    In the end – I think it’s the way in which the journalism is presented to the public (engaging/not engaging) that matters.

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  • You argue for investment in “for-profit companies that can build companies that support and sustain themselves rather than rely on hand-outs.” But, strictly, a company that makes just enough money to sustain itself and accomplish its purposes is a non-profit organization and is generally entitled to tax exemptions.

    A true “capitalist” (i.e. for-profit) company is about creating wealth for its investors. Every dollar that goes in is expected to come back with a premium. This is what investors “invest” in and what guides strategy — not the preservation of journalism, scrutiny of government or other social goods — not because of social irresponsibility but because of fiduciary duty. If you “invest” in the expectation not of more money but of some social outcome then what you have is a foundation, a trust, or some sort of charity.

    That said, if you invest in a journalistic non-profit you may want the trustees to run their organization like a business, making as much money as possible (e.g. from advertising or even by getting into M&As with for-profit orgs) so that your money can go farther. It may all be very cut-throat and businesslike.

    But capitalism it ain’t, because you aren’t getting a penny back. What you gave was – yes – a handout.

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  • Anthony Brunp

    Maybe, its because I am a conservative, but the media does have a liberal bias. Having said that, let me pass along something I heard Roger Ailes,
    head of Fox news say, “if you can’t cover something you don’t agree with fairly, you might be a weak journalist”.

    I wonder how many journalists fall short of this standard…

  • James

    Although I can see the problems with journalistic enterprises that run on donations, I couldn’t disagree more about capitalism producing reliable journalism.

    If you need to be convinced, just look at the british press. The sun has by far the largest distribution – it is most successful in terms of making money. But is this because it offers the most reliable and in depth coverage? No. It is full of shallow, celebrity based, popularist disinformation. It is purely sensationalist, focusing on shock stories and providing the public with completely unreliable dumbed down provocation in place of real reporting. This is what sells.

    In depth articles taking a calm and moderate tone do not sell to large audiences. A well written and researched article costs more money and if the catchy headline has already got you an audience, why bother?

    Pandering to public opinion sells. Catchy, sound bites taken out of context sell. Over reported shocking murders sell. Celebrity affairs and sex scandals sell. Lazy journalism cuts costs. Lazy journalism accepts official sources instead of undertaking time and money consuming independent research. Capitalism is not good for journalism.

    Newspapers desperately need regulation. They can not and will not reliably self regulate. They have no reason to – unreliable journalism does not suffer consequences of lower sales levels.
    If newspapers were forced to print retractions of unreliable or incorrect reporting ensuring they get the same amount of attention as the original statements then maybe we would make some progress. That is the first rule I would make if i could.

    I would recommend anyone to read a book called the Brass Check by Upton Sinclair to find out about the faults of a capitalist media system. I also highly reccommend

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